Baltimore Orioles' outfielder Mike Yastrzemski playing in his first big league baseball camp. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Buck Britton was a do-it-all infielder for Double-A Bowie in 2014 when a comet of a young outfielder with a name no one could ignore arrived in the midst of a breakout season: Mike Yastrzemski.
He'd gone from Low-A to start that year to a station on the cusp of the big leagues, with an on-field energy and off-field air that helped him maximize his abilities and draw admirers at every stop.
As much work as it took for Yastrzemski to arrive, it took that much more to get to where he is now — his first major league camp, the validation and opportunity that comes with it, and the well-earned reverence of those who have watched him push to break through as the Orioles cycled 31 different players through the major league outfield, and none with an iconic last name.
"For it to be, I don't even know how many years now — five years, six years now — and he's at his first camp?" said Britton, now the manager of the Orioles' Double-A Bowie affiliate. "It's shocking to me, but that's crazy how this game plays out for you, you know? Whether deserving or not, it's just kind of how opportunities arise or don't."
"It happened quick, and then kind of came to like a plateau, essentially," Yastrzemski said. "It's a big learning curve, because you can't let yourself get wrapped up in that situation. You can't let yourself stay in the past and try to hang your hat on what's happened. You've just got to look forward and keep grinding it out, and when it pays off, it's going to be that much more rewarding to have that story for yourself."
He's the epitome of a professional. He definitely deserved this, and he's been waiting for it for a while.
Orioles' Trey Mancini on teammate Mike Yastrzemski
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The grandson of Boston Red Sox legend and Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, and the son of an accomplished ballplayer himself in his father, Mike, the Orioles' Yastrzemski was drafted in the 14th round of the 2013 draft after a breakout senior season at Vanderbilt.
He was one of nine minor league players to reach double digits in doubles (34), triples (16), home runs (14) and stolen bases (18) in his first full pro season, when he rose from Low-A Delmarva to High-A Frederick and then Bowie while batting .288 over all three levels.
Baseball America rated him the No. 9 prospect in the organization after that season, and he was tapped to begin his climb through the high minors the following year, but his progress stalled. He hit .246 in 2015 and was back in Bowie to start 2016, where he got on base more and earned the bump to Triple-A Norfolk.
But he bounced between the two levels in the next two seasons, and though he played over 100 games every season and was an everyday player wherever he was, Yastrzemski, 28, has dealt with both torn abdominal muscles and a torn labrum in his hip. Instead of the typical pregame limbering-up process to maintain one's body through a long season, it was a "dragging three hours of tubs and ultrasound and ice and stretching and all this" just to be able to play.
With owner Peter Angelos ailing, Major League Baseball wants to know by June who 'controls' Orioles. The request is the strongest signal yet that the Orioles are transitioning from the leadership of Angelos, 89, who is no longer able to run the team.
The requisite core and hip surgeries fixed that, though, and after a disappointing assignment back to Bowie to start 2018, he put together his best Triple-A season to date, batting .265 with an .801 OPS and 33 extra-base hits in 94 games. He's still largely the same player he was during that first full season — he runs well, has the arm for right field and the instincts for center, and shows gap power.
But to lifelong friends he was drafted with, such as Trey Mancini, and players who suited up with him at levels Yastrzemski might have been overqualified for, what made this major league invite deserving was the type of teammate he is.
"He's the epitome of a professional," Mancini said. "He definitely deserved this, and he's been waiting for it for a while.
"All you can do is take it in stride, no matter where he's been assigned, or where he's been, or how the season has gone. He still keeps going and comes out better on the other side, and I think last year, a lot of people don't know that he had a really good year last year. He's finally healthy last year, too, and that might have something to do with it. He's really made himself a great player, and he deserves to be here."
Having moved to Nashville at the urging of Yastrzemski and his now-wife, Paige, Mancini believes some of that comes from Yastrzemski’s Vanderbilt pedigree. It's not a way to cope with playing with the expectations of those 11 letters on his back every day, but how he's hard-wired, Mancini said.
Yastrzemski described it as learning "what it's like to hold yourself to a higher standard than most people hold themselves to, and by the time you hold yourself to that standard, then people will understand that if you hold them to that standard, then you're not asking too much."
To Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, who assumed the mantle of top outfield prospects in the organization by the start of 2018 and shared a clubhouse with Yastrzemski to begin that season in Bowie, it was what he did for them off the field that was impressive.
"Never heard him say one bad thing or complain at all," Hays said. "He comes in, he works hard and does what he needs to do. I think it's a lot to say about someone when you're not in the exact position you want to be in, but you're still giving it all you have every single day and you're coming and being positive and you're just a great influence to all the players around you. Especially me, being a younger guy, seeing someone go about their business like that makes me want to be just like that."
It could have been disheartening for Yastrzemski to be at that level with players who were threats to his job, fated for the majors in a way that his trajectory suggested he might not be anymore. Yet there he was, recognizing the pressure someone like Mullins could be under and reminding him that it's the same game he's played his whole life.
"The most important thing is how your energy and how you carry yourself can affect not only yourself but the team, and your success can feed off others," Mullins said.
Six years of that in the Orioles' system has made Yastrzemski one of the most magnetic players in the Ed Smith Stadium clubhouse. Mancini and catcher Austin Wynns, who were teammates for years, view him as a peer. The younger generation sees a mentor. And it's the latter that Yastrzemski takes the most pride in.
New executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias bantered with relievers Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier for long after their teammates left, an exchange that in Bleier's mind is a vital piece to helping the Orioles' long, daunting road back to winning begin smoothly.
"That is where your true character comes out — when you're not in a good place, when you're not enjoying what's going on, when you're in that failure, that low zone," Yastrzemski said. "And if you can still somehow make an impact and make someone get better and be a good teammate and push someone around you to get better in your actions, then you're helping the organization some way and showing that you still have value.
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“I think that's a place that people have missed in the past, and that's a way to stick around. That's a way to get another chance. That's a way to turn someone's head. That's not saying it's a brown-nose type of things where you're trying to weasel your way in. That's not why you do it. You do it to be impactful. That's the only thought behind it."
That type of approach had to make the call from minor league operations director Kent Qualls inviting Yastrzemski to major league camp among the most satisfying Qualls ever made and Yastrzemski received. Yastrzemski was packing for a trip to visit his grandfather in Florida at the time when he got the news that he wouldn't just be brought along to receive polite applause when the Orioles got on a bus to play the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., every spring, but would be a full participant in major league spring training.
He said he's wanted it for a long time, even if his career showed him nothing is to be expected. The environment manager Brandon Hyde and his staff have created is one Yastrzemski said makes everyone feel like they belong in the big leagues, even if they've never been. He knows that's "going to travel a long way for a lot of people," himself included.
Considering the time he's put in in the organization, he's not out of place with any of the clubhouse cliques in Sarasota. There's a simple reason why, and Hyde can already tell why.